Framing: What Does Your Elephant Look Like?

Framing: What Does Your Elephant Look Like?

The way that we see the world is critical: it shapes our beliefs, thoughts, and actions. While we often don’t think consciously about how we view things, perhaps we should. More importantly, we should examine closely how other people, particularly our leaders, view the world. How we and they “frame” things determines the questions we ask, the answers we find, and the information we pay attention to or ignore.

Because the questions we ask determine the direction in which we seek answers, we need to ensure that we have framed the “big picture” properly. Recall the story of the blind men who experienced an elephant by touching it. Because each one felt a different part of the elephant and then generalized his experience to the entire animal, they all had different “pictures” of what an elephant is like. Not a single one of their descriptions was accurate.

When it comes to efforts to accelerate economic recovery, for example, are we looking at the “big picture” or just a piece of it? Have we included the entire issue in our frame, or just one small section of it? Too often, public sector decision-makers and leaders seem to be missing the big picture. Instead, they have framed the issue in ideological terms – i.e., as “loyalty” to their political party, which takes the form of partisan advocating for either increases in taxes or reductions in spending. What’s wrong with this picture? These choices represent inputs, not outcomes. The true outcome or “big picture” is providing public services as effectively as possible. By confusing inputs with outcomes, these leaders are framing the issue incorrectly, which means that the actions they take will not address the outcome. It’s time to change the frame by opening our eyes and seeing the elephant for what it really is.

During the 1992 U.S. presidential election, Bill Clinton’s win over incumbent George Bush was attributable in part to a campaign strategy that was summarized succinctly in this phrase that caught the public’s attention: “It’s the economy, stupid!” In essence, Clinton’s team re-framed the discussion from one that focused on foreign policy to one that concentrated on the economy. This shift helped him win the election.

We too, can “win” the economic recovery effort if leaders change their focus from inputs to outcomes. That is, instead of remaining mired in unproductive arguments about whether to raise taxes or cut spending, leaders must begin by agreeing on what the big picture – e.g., providing public services most effectively – looks like, then work backwards from there to identify the best ways to achieve that picture. This will allow the ensuing discussions to be productive, and to lead to positive actions. Instead of being like the blind men who argued passionately but unproductively about whether an elephant is like a pillar, or a rope, or a tree branch because they each spoke from their limited frames of reference, we can choose to enlarge the frame to be sure it includes the elephant in its entirety, and that we have a common picture.

Resources are limited, in both the public and the private sectors. Decision-makers need to identify priorities so they can allocate the available resources most effectively. While framing the issues properly does not change the situation or the reality that tough decisions must be made, it does ensure that we are focusing on outcomes that are achievable rather than on inputs that derail efforts to optimize the available resources. Which of the following questions is more likely to result in productive results?

            “Should we raise taxes or cut spending?”

            “How can we provide public services most effectively?”

We begin by framing issues around outcomes, such as the public good. This enables us to ask the questions that allow us to find answers that will help us prioritize our resources in order to achieve our big picture.

Pat Lynch, Ph.D., is President of Business Alignment Strategies, Inc., a consulting firm that helps clients optimize business results by aligning people, programs, and processes with organizational goals. You may contact Pat or call (562) 985-0333.


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